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What Our Students Need to Hear Right Now

What Our Students Need to Hear Right Now
Sarah Honan

When you ask school-based professionals - teachers, counselors, administrators - why they do what they do, you will usually get some variation on this response: To be the person for my students that I needed when I was in school. It’s why I entered the college counseling profession over a decade ago. As a student at a large, public high school, my college counseling process looked like one appointment with my counselor senior year during which I handed over a complete list of schools, corresponding due dates, and a resume of my activities in the hope that she would learn a little bit about me before completing my recommendation letters (did I mention this was our first and only meeting?) To be fair, with a caseload of over 100 kids and a list of responsibilities that included testing, mental health counseling, and administrative duties, her ability to reserve an entire class period to meet with me was nothing short of a miracle. Thus, I was left to navigate most of the college process alone with the help of my parents - both first-generation college students whose knowledge of college was similarly limited. While I wouldn’t change a thing about where I ended up (you can read more about that part of my story here), I often think about how different my college list and process might have looked had there been someone to guide me. 

Earlier this month, we were lucky enough to welcome back five of our extraordinary young alumni for our annual W+H Young Alumni Panel, during which the students reflect on their experiences with the college application process and their transition from high school to college. As I listened to their sage advice and thoughtful reflections, it struck me that each panelist had, in fact, become the voice they most needed to hear in high school, and their collective voices represent what our students need to hear right now. Here are some of those reflections:

Look at clubs and organizations within the different schools to see if they spark your interest and if you could see yourself being a member of that community. - Ariana Di Landro ‘21 When students and parents think about “college fit” their minds often gravitate towards admitted student profiles - average test scores, average GPAs, and other academic markers. However, in our College Counseling Seminar, we challenge students to think about “fit” more holistically. What factors need to be present in your college experience to bring out the best in you? Where can you thrive? When thought of in this way, “college fit” becomes not just about the classroom experience, but the social and extracurricular experience. Where will your burgeoning talents and leadership skills be nurtured? Where will you meet and engage with people who regularly inspire and challenge you? Where will you be able to make meaningful contributions? Because we know that students (and adults for that matter) do their best work in places where they feel seen and valued. 

When you guys are building your college lists, don’t just look at the name of the university because all these universities have their own qualities that [make them stand out]. If I could go back in time and redo my college list, I would look at schools that were better for my major, not just schools that were known for their name. College doesn’t make you - you make the college work for you in your own way. - Izzy Korycki ‘22 To say that the college application process is overwhelming would be an understatement. With over 2,500 four-year colleges in the U.S., building a college list of 12-15 schools can feel like a Herculean task, especially for our first-generation students and families. It’s no wonder, then, that many of our students and families rely on things like college rankings to help them make sense of the chaos. The problem with this approach? College rankings, at best, often don’t tell students what they really need to know to answer their questions about “fit” and, at worst, can outright lie (see recent cases involving Columbia University and Temple University’s Business School). This is why many schools, including most recently Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School, have decided to stop cooperating with U.S. News and World Report (which publishes perhaps the most well-known set of rankings), citing perverse incentives for institutions to put numbers above students. In College Counseling, we spend a week “unpacking the rankings” with students and many are shocked to learn what actually goes into their calculations - things like faculty salaries, “expert” opinions of other college administrators, and the percent of alumni who give to the college annually. While these things may be important to folks running various divisions of the university, how important are they to you as a student? Will you select one school over another simply because they pay their faculty more? Or because their alumni give to the annual fund at a higher rate? There is, of course, no right answer here. It all comes back to what matters to you as a student

Looking back, I realize I did much better with schools I actually wanted to go to, just writing the essays - it was much more personalized. - Ramon Gonzalez ‘22  One of the best and most underutilized ways to determine whether a particular college or university might be the right “fit” for a student is the supplemental essay. While some schools have stuck with the rather uninspired “Why Us?” essay prompt, a growing number have shifted into asking questions that will actually help them achieve their institutional goals and find students strongly aligned with their community values and personality. In these cases, gauging how much you enjoy writing the essay is a powerful indicator of how much you are likely to enjoy the community you are aiming to join. Take one of the University of Chicago’s essay prompts as an example: What advice would a wisdom tooth have? You are either going to love or hate this prompt and that’s purposeful! UChicago is a place for people who love ideas, who find the fun in essay prompts and thought exercises like this one that have no immediate practical application. If you read this prompt and get excited, great - give UChicago another look. But if you read this prompt and think, Who cares?, then UChicago is probably not going to be your “best fit” school. The strongest college essays are the ones that students are most excited to write - that spark their thinking and passion. Those are the essays that make admissions folks sit up in their seats and take notice, and the ones that most often meet with success. 

Something I would tell my junior or senior year self is to stop comparing myself to people. I spent a lot of time worrying about other people and not being confident in myself. It’s just wasting your brain power and it’s not helpful. - Rose Kassam ‘22 If I could only give one piece of advice to a high school student, it might be this one. The college application process is an incredibly personal experience based on your unique academic, social, and financial needs as a student. Because of this, it makes no sense to base your decisions about where to apply or attend on the actions and opinions of other people. You would (hopefully) never base your breakfast choice at Dunkin Donuts on whatever the person in front of you just ordered, right? Of course not - you’re the one who has to eat it! What if you’re allergic? What if they love blueberry iced coffee with five packets of Splenda and you usually take your coffee without sweetener? While you may laugh at the absurdity of this example, building a college list based on the opinions of others is no different. It’s your college experience, four years of your life, your future. Remember, you’re the one who has to eat it.  

Wardlaw+Hartridge provides so many supports - the counselors, your teachers - I don’t think I fully understood that in junior year when I was so stressed about SATs and thinking about what colleges I was going to apply to. So, stay relaxed, have fun, and enjoy your junior year. - Calum Huang ‘22 There’s no denying the college application process is overwhelming for students and parents alike. So, it’s important to remember - you are not alone.  One of the things that makes Wardlaw+Hartridge such an exceptional place for young people is the strength of our community. Whether it’s your peers, your teachers or your counselor - we are always here to help. So, take it one step, one breath at a time. Come to school, engage in your classes (including College Counseling!), ask hard questions, and take advantage of every opportunity to learn. If you do these things each day, you will build a foundation of confidence and success for senior year and beyond.